|by Fay Jacobs|
|Is It Real Or Is It "Memoir?"
There's a fight going on in the publishing industry and I was briefly part of the dust-up.
Perhaps you are aware of writer James Frye who wrote a best-selling memoir of his life on drugs, in prison and other unsavory experiences which led to the NY Times best-seller list and a spot on Oprah's couch.
The only problem was, much of his book was fiction and he was verbally spanked throughout the publishing world and almost literally spanked by Oprah. Fiction is fiction and memoir is memoir or so it would seem.
Not so fast. Since the new millennium began, memoirs have been flying off bookstore shelves (okay, not flying, but being purchased. The essence is still true.) hundreds of times faster (a slight exaggeration perhaps) than fiction books.
Got a book to write? Memoir is in if you have dollar signs in your eyes. Or, in my case, if you couldn't write fiction even if a publisher put an Uzi to your head. Okay, a slight exaggeration but still true. I could write hideously bad fiction rather than having my ears blown off but you get my point.
Memoir means memory. You remember the stuff you write. If you invent entire escapades and lifestyles, it's fiction, dammit.
Well last month I made my annual pilgrimage to New Orleans for the Saints & Sinners GLBT Literary Conference. There, I had the honor of serving on a panel with other memoirists to discuss the meaning of the genre. The title of the 10 a.m. session was Truths Stranger Than Fiction: Lives Revealed in Memoir.
After partying much of the night on Bourbon Street, drinking innumerable Hurricanes and stumbling back to the hotel while singing showtunes, a 10 a.m. panel was cruel and unusual punishment. Okay, I had exactly four Hurricanes, not innumerable. I'm trying to stick to the truth here. By night's end I could enumerate the number of drinks I had but not pronounce innumerable.
Well, the session on memoir turned into quite a brawl. Hell, nobody actually wrestled anybody to the floor but to substitute "loud discussion" would have readers snoring. I will stop with the wordsmithing now. You get my drift. The panel and the audience did indeed have a lively and provocative hour and a half.
After fairly universal agreement that making up events out of whole cloth and deceiving readers with fake exploits was heinous, shades of grey started to emerge. Author Mark Doty, who has written a splendid memoir called Firebird and many other delightful books was ready to give a whole lot more artistic license to writers than some others on the panel. He spoke of memory as recalling both the real and the quasi-real, exploring where the mind might take us.
Robert Leloux, author of Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, a current best-seller, seemed to add his voice to Mark's point of view.
I respectfully disagreed. "I believe what we write has to have happened. We can add color, exaggerate for effect and craft words for humor. We can shape time lines to make stories less confusing and more readable. But stories have to be true to call it memoir." I said.
"Absolutely!" shouted a woman in the second row. "I agree! You have a contract with the reader, asking them to believe what you write!" She was taking no prisoners as she continued to engage Mark and Robert in a debate, citing truth as incontrovertible, with others on the panel agreeing with her, then Mark, then me, then others. But above all this dynamo in the second row kept us returning to truth as sacred.
It wasn't too many minutes into the melee (again, a verbal melee, no uppercuts to the chin) that I realized it was memoirist Dorothy Allison (pictured at right), author of the astonishing and brilliant Bastard Out of Carolina who was taking my side in the debate.
Wow. For a minute I was too humbled to speak again. I got over it.
Pretty soon talk shifted to Augusten Burroughs whose five memoirs and essay collections have been NY Times best sellers. His memoir Running With Scissors was positively heartbreaking and hilarious all at once, but its veracity has been challenged in the courts. The loony (according to the author) psychiatrist that Burroughs went to live with after his mother abandoned himthe shrink who purportedly predicted good or bad days by the positions of his turds in the toiletsued the author for defamation and falsehoods and the case was settled out of court. When I thought the memoir was all true, I was much less disgusted by the telltale turd story.
In the final analysis, everyone on the panel and in the audience that day pretty much agreed. Truth matters. The controversy is in the degrees. And I guess that's what makes horse races and good memoir.
It's a pity Scott McClellan's book about the Bush administration hadn't come out yet. The former press secretary's scathing indictment of his White House days has members of the Bush team shrieking "Liar, Liar, pants on fire!" Somehow, I am certain that McClellan subscribes to the Dorothy Allison theory of memoirshirts, shoes and truth required.
Meanwhile, back at the conference, we all partied together and how it gets retold in memoir will surely be very different for each of us.
In my case I was thrilled to be sharing stories and cocktails with Dorothy Allison, mystery writer JM Redman, and the many friends I have made over the years in New Orleans. When I get around to writing about the adventure I will not leave out the part about my spouse sleeping it off in the bathtub, yours truly knocking over more than one Hurricane at the Good Friends bar or hanging out with our boyfriends at a tavern where scantily clad boys cavorted on the bar. And you can bet your sweet Hurricane, I may change the names to protect the guilty and leave out a boring incident or two, but the gist of the tale will be: we were fried and it was true.Memoirs are made of these.
Fay Jacobs is the author of As I Lay Fryinga Rehoboth Beach Memoir and Fried & TrueTales from Rehoboth Beach. Contact her at www.fayjacobs.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 07 June 13, 2008